Confucius was one of China’s best-known philosophers. He was born in 551 B.C. in the feudal state Lu. He acquired the knowledge which a scholar had to possess, and then taught in the families of nobles, also helping in the administration of their properties. He made several attempts to obtain advancement, either in vain or with only a short term of employment ending in dismissal. Thus Confucius’ career was a continuing pilgrimage from one noble to another, from one feudal lord to another, accompanied by a few young men, sons of scholars, who were partly his pupils and partly his servants. Many of these disciples seem to have been “illegitimate” sons of noblemen, i.e. sons of concubines, and Confucius’s own family seems to have been of the same origin. In the strongly patriarchal system of that time, children of secondary wives had a lower social status. Ultimately Confucius gave up his wanderings, settled in his home town of Lu and there taught his disciples until his death in 479 B.C.
Confucius’ importance lies in the fact that he systematized a body of ideas, not of his own creation, and communicated it to a circle of disciples. His teachings were later set down in writing and formed, extending until the twentieth century, the moral code of the upper classes of China. Confucius was fully conscious of his membership of a social class whose existence was tied to that of the feudal lords. With their disappearance, his type of scholar had become superfluous. The common people (the lower class) were in his view in an entirely subordinate position. Thus his moral teaching is a code for the ruling class.
Just as sun, moon, and stars move in the heavens in accordance with law, so man should conduct himself on earth in accord with the universal law, not against it. The ruler should not actively intervene in day-to-day policy, but should only act by setting an example; he should observe the established ceremonies, and offer all sacrifices in accordance with the rites, and then all else will go well in the world. The individual, too, should be guided exactly in his life by the prescriptions of the rites, so that harmony with the law of the universe may be established.
A second idea of the Confucian system is the patriarchal idea, according to which the family is the cell of society and at the head of the family stands the eldest male adult as a patriarch. Within the family there are a number of ties, all of them, however, one-sided: that of father to son (the son having to obey the father unconditionally and having no rights of his own), that of husband to wife (the wife has no rights), etc. The final link, and the only one extending beyond the family and uniting it with the state, is the association of the ruler with the subject, a replica of that between father and son. The frictionless functioning of this whole system is effected by everyone adhering to the rites, which prescribe every important action. It is necessary, of course, that in a large family, in which there may be up to a hundred persons living together, there shall be a precisely established ordering of relationships between individuals if there is not to be continual friction. Since the scholars of Confucius’s type specialized in the knowledge and conduct of ceremonies, Confucius gave ritualism a correspondingly important place both in spiritual and in practical life.
Adapted from A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard, 2004
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